We’re often asked “What’s the absolute best place to go?”
“It depends what you like…”
Today was a classic illustration of that.
Over another ham and egg breakfast on the terrace outside the campsite restaurant, young Frankie gave us his recommendations in the Kokořínsko Protected Landscape,
“Houska Castle and the Pokličky rocks. ‘Pokličky’ means ‘pot lids’ – they are a symbol of the area.”
Local advice is invaluable, so we embarked on a scenic, circular drive to incorporate both. It took us past Bezděz Castle, striking on its hilltop, and through traditional Czech villages, full of distinctive timber houses with their thin, horizontal black and white stripes. Kruh was especially attractive. Many houses use the local topography as sheds, with doors fitted across the mouths of caves in the sandstone cliffs.
Dating back to the 13th Century, Hrad Houska (Houska Castle) raises many questions. Why was it built in a marshy, forested wilderness, unsuitable for hunting, far from any trading routes and with no strategic value? Why are there no stairways from the upper floors into the courtyard and why are so many of its windows fake? Why is there no kitchen, well or water source? Why is it named after a bun? (In Czech, houska means a braided bread roll, as illustrated by the sculpture of a plaited loaf on a banister.) Even more puzzling, why are its defensive fortifications on the inside?
If you were to ask, “Who lives in a house like that?”, the answer throughout most of the castle’s history is nobody.
Houska was not built to be inhabited. Its true purpose is revealed by the folklore surrounding its location.
In the Middle Ages, a split in the rock on which the castle now stands became known as ‘The Gateway to Hell’. It was a bottomless pit, impossible to fill, from which demonic, winged beasts reportedly emerged. Part animal, part human, these fiendish creatures attacked locals and dragged them into the abyss.
A young prisoner on death row was promised a pardon if he agreed to be lowered into the chasm and report what he had seen. According to legend, the convict began to scream uncontrollably within seconds. When he was pulled out, he was insane. His face had aged thirty years and his hair turned white. Within two days, he died of unknown causes.
It seems that the aim of Hrad Houska was not to keep enemies out, but to keep them in. The castle chapel was deliberately constructed over the abyss, to seal the portal to the underworld.
Even today, the castle is viewed as one of the most haunted locations in the world. Visitors claim to hear scratching and screams, supposedly demonic creatures trying to claw their way to the surface. People report their cars failing to start and dogs going mad. The castle appears in many annals of the paranormal and is claimed to be a time portal. It boasts a plethora of ghosts; from a full cast of human characters, including a white lady and faceless monk, to a headless horse gushing blood and a human/bullfrog/dog hybrid. The Nazis occupied the castle, reputedly to conduct experiments into the occult, although as always, they destroyed all records when they left.
Despite its status as one of the best-preserved castles of the early Gothic period and all its apparent fame, Houska hadn’t come to light in our research. Once we arrived, we realised why.
What confronted us truly was the gateway to hell.
A courtyard full of tourists, stalls and an entrance to a tacky ghost train ride held zero appeal.
I am normally quite sensitive to the atmosphere of buildings. As a scientist, I have a healthy scepticism regarding the paranormal. However, I have occasionally sensed something strange about a place, only to discover later that something disturbing had happened there. At Houska, I felt nothing.
Our decision was instant. We turned on our heel and took the dogs for a short walk in the woods. The dogs did go mad, but that was perfectly normal behaviour for them in a woodland. The views across the sunlit, rolling countryside were lovely, but we decided to get away from the crowds and find somewhere nice for a coffee.
We left Houska to complete our circular route on a spectacular road, like a raised causeway through the top of the forest. As we passed cyclists, I tried not to look at the drops that fell away on both sides of the hairpins.
The town of Kokořín offered nothing on the coffee and lunch front, so we continued on towards the eateries that we knew surrounded Kokořín Castle. A long, low, wooden buffet offered pizza for £3, but we opted for the posher restaurant across the road. All in Czech, the menu was impenetrable, but after a diet of nothing but meat for nearly a week, we once again asked for something with veggies. We hoped for a tad more vitamins and fibre than Frankie’s dollop of horseradish sauce!
Our waitress spoke a little English and recommended two typical Czech pork dishes, which came with cabbage and dumplings. The tablespoon of cabbage was an afterthought. After half a kilo of dumplings, we were not hungry when we waddled off in search of the Pokličky!
I’m not sure that Hrad Houska is a portal to the past, but the Pokličky certainly are. The origin of the curious, mushroom-shaped sandstone pillars starts during the Cretaceous period, 145 million years ago. The ‘lids’ contain more iron, which weathers less readily than the soft sandstone and clay pillars beneath. The formations stand an impressive twelve metres in height.
The Pokličky were a few steps from the car park, with a steep climb up a wooden ladder to view them. Then, we followed a circular route, first on a forest track, which was pleasant, but ordinary. “It’s not the Saxon Swiss National Park!” we said. We are so spoiled! Things improved when our route turned into a sunken road with twisted beech roots winding through its banks. This led to an area of fantastic sandstone formations, which we climbed and explored in the dappled sunlight of a beech wood, which never fails to delight me. There were all kinds of impressive pillars and stacks in the forest.
One of the side canyons had an impressive array grottoes and caves. We followed it and explored a narrow pothole in its walls. Our little black girl, Lani, was not too keen. She whimpered and started shaking, so we returned from our underground explorations.
The canyon track was quite messy with fallen logs, which the pups trotted daintily along like expert tightrope walker. We turned back then headed to the car park. Of course, Princess Ruby found some lovely mud puddles to paddle in, so we had to do a doggie rinse when we got back.
Luckily, our hearty lunch dictated that we would not need dinner. So far from a supermarket, our choices back at the caravan were the last piece of gingerbread, half a rotting melon and some bread purloined from breakfast!
While our decision was based on the soaring summer temperatures, we felt relieved that we had bailed out on Spain when we noted a big Covid spike in Catalonia. Although we had not seen a mask since we entered the Czech Republic, we felt secure eating outdoors and using the facilities in our caravan.
Please note that we were in the Czech Republic in the summer, before the state of emergency was declared.
For a map of our walk, czech out this link to Mapy.cz!
Wikimedia, unmodified except where indicated.
- Houska Castle By Ben Skála, Benfoto – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.
- Bezdez Castle By Pastorius – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.
- Houska bread roll sculpture By ŠJů (cs:ŠJů) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.
- Houska fresco By ŠJů (cs:ŠJů) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0. Cropped from portrait to landscape.
- Houska with crowd By Palickap – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.